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Advances in equipment may avert some head injuries

Molly Caron wears her soccer head gear after suffering a concussion during a game.

John Tlumacki/Globe Staff

Molly Caron wears her soccer head gear after suffering a concussion during a game.

No equipment is guaranteed to prevent a concussion. But manufacturers say innovative football helmets, soccer headgear, and mouth guards can reduce their severity.

DOES SOCCER HEADGEAR HELP?

Molly Caron wishes she had been wearing headgear when she got a concussion playing soccer in October. Now the Bridgewater-Raynham Regional High School senior is promoting the use of such protection by her peers.

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“It’s really lightweight,” she said. “I can still head the ball just fine.”

But some experts say its benefits haven’t been proven.

“We don’t have clear evidence it’s going to pre-vent concus-sions, but it might help as long as by putting it on, a player doesn’t feel more invulnerable and play more aggressively,” said neuropsychologist Neal McGrath, clinical director of Sports Concussion New England , based in Brookline.

It’s a hard sell to players, say coaches. And recently, Caron was the only one on her team wearing the padded headband.

Dr. Kenneth Lawson, medical director for SportSmart at Signature Healthcare, said he would recommend headgear for anyone playing soccer, based on research findings.

“I would make it akin to wearing shin pads, which years ago people thought would ruin the game,” he said.

WHAT’S IN A FOOTBALL HELMET?

No piece of equipment gets more attention these days than football helmets, with new technology ranging from air-filled liners meant to minimize head movement to devices that detect the power of a hit.

After Arlington parents called for replacing the high school team’s aging football helmets, the school district bought 58 new ones, including Riddell Revolution Speed and Xenith X2 models, said head football coach John Dubzinski.

Xenith uses air-cell shock absorbers, according to chief executive and founder Vin Ferrara, who was a starting quarterback at Harvard. When a player is hit, air is forced out through a small hole, which minimizes the sudden movement of the head and therefore the severity of a brain injury, he said.

Riddell’s Revolution Speed has extended jaw-line protection with the same foam padding found in the rest of the helmet, among other features that help protect against head injuries, said Erin Griffin, a spokeswoman for the company. Helmet technology is evolving constantly in response to the latest research, she said, noting that a newer model, the Riddell 360, incorporates a flexible face mask to help divert the energy from a front hit.

Some helmets are sporting computerized attachments that can estimate the seriousness of a hit. Impakt Protective Inc., based in Ottawa, created its Shockbox device for hockey and will soon release a football version, a spokesman said. Information from the device is transmitted directly to a coach’s or trainer’s smartphone.

An Arlington-based company, Coretex LLC, hopes to test its data recorder this fall with local high school football teams, according to Alex Patterson, the company’s founder. The device, which is about the size of two AA batteries and mounts on the back of a helmet, uses red, yellow, and green lights to indicate the probability of injury from a collision.

No equipment is guaranteed to prevent a concussion. But manufacturers say innovative football helmets, soccer headgear, and mouth guards can reduce their severity.

John Tlumacki/Globe South

No equipment is guaranteed to prevent a concussion. But manufacturers say innovative football helmets, soccer headgear, and mouth guards can reduce their severity.

But specialists say even the best-designed helmet won’t necessarily protect against dangerous play.

“Don’t let people target each other’s head,” said Stefan Duma, head of the biomedical engineering department at Virginia Tech, whose research led to practice limitations initiated by the national Pop Warner youth football program.

JURY STILL OUT ON MOUTH GUARDS

Do mouth guards reduce the chance of suffering a concussion? It depends on whom you ask.

Gerald Maher, team dentist for the New England Patriots, has patented specialized mouthpieces that he says can lessen the severity of a concussion.

A blow to the jaw radiates to the brain, said Maher, and his mouth guard is designed to move the jaw downward and forward to minimize the effect of the impact.

About 25 of 120 football players at Duxbury High School use the Maher mouth guards, said head coach David Maimaron, a big proponent of the appliances.

“We’ve had a lot of success,” he said.

A 2009 article coauthored by Maher in the journal Dental Traumatology provides support for the device’s role in limiting brain injuries. But Robert Cantu, clinical professor of neurosurgery at Boston University School of Medicine, said there is no statistical proof that mouth guards can reduce the chance of concussion.

“The jury is totally out that mouth guards do anything,” said Cantu, who is also codirector of BU’s Center for the Study of Traumatic Encephalopathy.

Still, he recommends that athletes use mouth guards because they can help protect the teeth and mouth.

Lisa Kocian can be reached at lkocian@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeLisaKocian.
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